Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Merry Christmas from Saudi Claus?

Gasoline prices across American have plummeted recently, plunging right through what I've come to call the "Gingrich threshold." (Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich promised during his 2012 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination that his policies would drop pump prices to $2.50 a gallon.) Now, even without the bumptious Pennsylvania native in the White House, some places are seeing prices 20 percent below that. I've seen some pro-Democratic sites add this to the list of achievements by President Obama, but that's reaching. The most we can say is that Obama's energy policies, such as they are, haven't prevented prices from dropping.

But we're not about politics or personalities here. We want to know: Why did this happen? Is this a good thing? And should I now buy a house in a subdivision in the cornfields?

Oil prices have been volatile since the turn of the millennium, which mostly have been due to fluctuations in supply. (An exception was the drop in prices in late 2008, when the economic slowdown caused a drop in demand.) Economic development in Asia, particularly in China and India, has increased demand, and exerted a steady upward push on prices. Once a certain price was reached, it became economical for companies to extract oil from difficult places, like shale deposits in America and the Canadian tar sands. The increased supply could exert a steady downward push on prices.

That didn't answer the question, did it? The forces I've described in the previous paragraph could explain a cycle of mild ups and downs in gasoline prices, but is not as convincing an explanation for why oil prices have fallen by 50 percent in the last six months. So, what's going on? Commentary runs to two explanations: [a] manipulation by the Saudis, who continue to control the largest amount of traditional oil reserves, and have some motives to drive supplies up and prices down; or [b] it's really markets i.e. the supply increase from American and Canadian production has generated unstoppable momentum. That one also requires Saudi involvement, however, because they could have counteracted the price drop by decreasing their own production, which they did not. They did try that during the 2008 downturn, only to have other producers make up the difference, which is probably why they're not doing it now. They're wealthy enough for the price hit they're taking not to be painful, while other oil-producing countries who are not their friends--like Iran and Russia--are hurting.

Many commentators feel American oil production is likely to be resilient, although costs of extraction costs are much higher here than in Saudi Arabia. Eric Smith of Tulane University's Energy Institute told NPR's Marketplace that American producers could keep going with prices where they are now, in the mid 50's per barrel. “You’d probably go down to $30 before somebody shuts in a well. They might not drill a new one. But they wouldn’t stop producing the old one until the price got below that cost.” The Economist notes the financial vulnerability of American oil firms, but suggests that low prices would only pause shale production. "There is always a new set of investors" said one of their sources, ready when price incentives to produce return, possibly with better technology.

So, definitely good for drivers, companies that have energy-intensive production or high transportation costs, and consumers that buy their products. Mixed news for American oil producers (and their investors), and bad for the autocratic rulers of Iran, Russia and Venezuela, as well as their client states like Cuba. Sounds like a win so far! But what are the impacts of lower gasoline prices on our common life? Here there's some good news, too: Lower energy prices stimulate the economy, which might give our four-year-old recovery the kick in the pants it needs to do some serious job creation at last. Jobs that pay well? Well, maybe.

On the other hand... until recently high energy prices were working together with changes in how people want to live, shaky government finances, and developing concerns with pollution and climate change to produce a society-wide rethink of our car-centered economy. The combination has produced, for example, the changes in American living arrangements documented by Leigh Gallagher in The End of the Suburbs. If we decide all of a sudden that cheap gasoline--relatively speaking, of course, because it was under a dollar a gallon as recently as 2001--is here to stay, those other issues aren't going to go away. But the compulsion to address them might.

If we decide all of a sudden that gasoline is going to be cheap, and then the price bounces back up--analyst John Michael Greer calls this current phase a "fracking bubble"--things might get ugly around here.


Historical data on oil prices from TradingCharts.com: http://futures.tradingcharts.com/chart/CO/18

Leigh Gallagher, The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2013)

John Michael Greer, "Deja Vu All Over Again," The Archdruid Report, 17 December 2014, http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2014/12/deja-vu-all-over-again.html

Mitchell Hartman, "Oil Prices Scrape Bottom of the Barrel," Marketplace, 18 December 2014, http://www.marketplace.org/topics/economy/crude-economy/oil-prices-scrape-bottom-barrel

"In a Bind," Economist, 6 December 2014, 81-82

Joe Nocera, "Shale and the Falling Price of Oil," New York Times, 23 December 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/23/opinion/joe-nocera-shale-and-the-falling-price-of-oil.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&_r=0

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The latest bad news and our common life

Memphis protester, swiped from Memphis Commercial-Appeal
Those of us who expressed loud relief at the conclusion of the late election season ought to have been careful for what we wished. We are most of us used to election-year bloviating, after all, and eventually it goes away, and we move on with our lives. The news that has replaced all the campaigning this year, however, has dealt a series of body blows to our quest for a common life. It's enough to make you nostalgic for Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-California) and his rumors of ISIS agents carrying Ebola germs over the Mexican border.

The grand jury decision not to seek indictment in the case of Eric Garner gave new life to restiveness about police treatment of blacks. The latest chapter began in August with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August. Garner, like Brown, was unarmed; he died of suffocation this past July while being physically restrained by a New York City police officer, and his last words were the now-famous phrase "I can't breathe." A 42-year-old man with a wife and children, he made a more sympathetic figure than the 18-year-old Brown, who had just come from robbing a convenience store. While sorting out facts and causation in specific incidents is difficult, the two men's deaths have symbolized a broader theme of problematic relations between police departments and blacks. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People produced a list of 76 unarmed people of color who have died in police custody since 1999. Maybe Michael Brown is easy to dislike, and maybe the 12-year-old boy in Cleveland was extremely foolish, but it's more difficult to claim that all 76 killings were justified. Or to claim that racial disparities in sentencing, or the amazing proportion of African-American men who are under control of the justice system, are all due to individual irresponsibility.

This restiveness gave rise to a series of protests throughout the fall of 2014 and into the winter, including one December 9 at Coe College, where I teach. Police response in different communities has varied, from charm offensives to bemusement to circling the wagons. The NYPD publicly asked Mayor Bill DeBlasio to stay away from officers' funerals after remarks by DeBlasio--whose wife is black and son is dark-skinned--upon the Eric Garner verdict that they considered insulting (Ruud). I certainly understand the inclination to react defensively: As a college professor, I sometimes take personally stories of student loan debt or excessive classroom ideology. But this is entirely the wrong reaction. We need effective policing, because no matter how successful we are at creating a common life there will always be some crime from which society needs protection. Policing, though, remains effective if and only if the police are seen as serving the whole community. If African-Americans perceive that the police are not there to serve and protect them, how can we live together? If white Americans rely for protection from blacks on aggressive policing--or, heaven help us, vigilantes like the delusional George Zimmerman--common life is impossible.

The same day of the Coe student protests brought the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on "enhanced interrogation" of terror suspects by the Central Intelligence Agency in the middle years of the last decade. The report--based on an extensive review of CIA records--details what most of us already knew, at least vaguely: that American agents practiced a variety of psychological torture techniques at secret prisons in countries like Poland and Romania. The program's defenders--including former Vice President Dick Cheney and current CIA director John Brennan--claim valuable intelligence was gained from these practices ("Cheney Defends," Baker and Mazzetti), albeit details of the benefits aren't forthcoming and the report itself debunks some of those claims. More than 20 percent of these prisoners were found to have no links to terrorism at all, and many others were not connected to 9/11, which ought to give people pause before arguing what "they" did to us justified whatever our agents did to "them."

Remarkably, national Republicans have closed ranks around the program, to the extent of refusing even to participate in the preparation of the report. This is too bad. President Obama, a Democrat, while anti-waterboarding, has hardly been out front on the issue. But the most eloquent, moving contribution to this debate came from U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), who knows a thing or two about torture from his long years in Vietnamese prisons:

Sen McCain, swiped from nytimes.com
I have long believed some of these practices amounted to torture, as a reasonable person would define it, especially, but not only the practice of waterboarding, which is a mock execution and an exquisite form of torture. Its use was shameful and unnecessary; and, contrary to assertions made by some of its defenders and as the Committee's report makes clear, it produced little useful intelligence to help us track down the perpetrators of 9/11 or prevent new attacks and atrocities.
I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering. Most of all, I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, which are protected by international conventions the U.S. not only joined, but for the most part authored. (McCain; see also Rosenthal)
Outgoing U.S. Senator Mark Udall (D-Colorado) has also been forcefully articulate.

The debate on torture tends to conflate two distinct aspects of the issue: effectiveness (was this the best way of getting good information?) and morality (were these torture techniques good or evil?). The CIA itself had concluded as long ago as 1989 that the techniques were not very useful, and there has been an impressive pile of evidence to that effect. But even if some usable intelligence was obtained, should the U.S. have tortured? From early settlers looking to build a "city on a hill" to international leadership on human rights since the 1970s, the United States of America has always had a moral component to it. If we treat people in our custody cruelly, if we use the actions of terrorists as the standard by which to judge our own actions, we are nothing more than any other country, except for being more powerful. If right makes might, the CIA actions have made us less powerful as well as less exemplary. (Now I'm conflating, aren't I?) I'm reminded of a pivotal moment in the play "A Man for All Seasons" by Robert Bolt about Sir Thomas More, the 16th century English chancellor who defied King Henry VIII:
ROPER. So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!
MORE. Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
 ROPER. I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
MORE.  Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you--where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast--man's laws, not God's--and if you cut them down--and you're just the man to do it--d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. (p. 66)
Paul Scofield (left) as Sir Thomas More; swiped from theguardian.com

Finally, and less violently, Congress and the President agreed on a continuing resolution to keep the government (excepting the Department of Homeland Security, due to controversy over Obama's executive order on immigration) open through September. This is good, because we need the national government, at least for some things, but some of the riders needed to pass the resolution were obscene. Some were out-and-out giveaways to the well-connected: weaker regulation of financial services, environmental reporting exemptions for agribusiness, a travel promotion program for Las Vegas (cf. Pear). If anyone wants to make the unfortunate case that the government in Washington is about the powerful helping themselves at the expense of ordinary people, this budget deal provides plenty of grist for their mill.

How to respond to all this, to defend the notion of a common life? Well, maybe after seven paragraphs of lamentation I feel my work here is done. Beyond that, have the widespread protests any value? I argue they do. As a middle-class white American male, I am chagrined to admit that much of what I've described above has been done on my behalf. So, like it or not, I own these messes, so it behooves me to cry out against them: "Not in my name!" [The only time I've ever brought up something political in a church service was back in the bad old days of the Northern Irish troubles, to complain about a particularly egregious action by Protestant militants. Not that Catholics didn't have egregious militants of their own, but as a Protestant I felt more responsible for Protestant violence.]
Protest at Coe College, swiped from Coe Facebook page

So, protest is not a bad first step. But it doesn't repair the breach in our common life. What then is step two?

"Are We All Ferguson?," 19 August 2014
"Race Matters, Damn It," 16 April 2013


Peter Baker and Mark Mazzetti, "Brennan Draws on Bond With Obama in Backing C.I.A.," New York Times, 15 December 2014, A1

Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons: A Play in Two Acts (New York: Random House, 1962)

"Cheney Defends CIA Interrogation Techniques, Calls Senate Report 'Deeply Flawed,'" FOX News, 11 December 2014, http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/12/11/cheney-defends-cia-interrogation-techniques-calls-senate-report-flawed/

John S. McCain, "Sen. McCain's Full Statement on the CIA Torture Report," USA Today, 9 December 2014, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2014/12/09/john-mccain-statement-cia-terror-report/20144015/

Robert Pear, "In Final Spending Bill, Salty Food and Belching Cows Are Winners," New York Times, 15 December 2014, A1, A15

Andrew Rosenthal, "John McCain: The Anti-Cheney on Torture," Taking Note, 16 December 2014, http://takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/12/16/john-mccain-the-anti-cheney-on-torture/

Candice Ruud, "NYPD Union Asks Mayor de Blasio Not to Attend Officers' Funerals," Newsday, 12 December 2014, http://www.newsday.com/news/new-york/nypd-union-asks-nyc-mayor-bill-de-blasio-not-to-attend-fallen-officers-funerals-1.9709927

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Obstacles to gentle gentrification

Can the MedQuarter...

...and New Wellington attract needed investment without pricing out current residents?

The week-long series of reports on gentrification by the excellent public radio program "Marketplace" makes at least three things abundantly clear: [a] gentrification is occurring all over the country; [b] gentrification rarely if ever occurs without clear winners and losers, not to mention a lot of bad feelings; and [c] the reputation of gentrification is so broadly negative that the word itself carries a negative connotation. (It's what the rhetoric scholar S.I. Hayakawa called a "snarl word.")

Yet I maintain that the future of America, particularly urban America, requires gentrification. We need a little gentrification, right this very minute. Granted, it must be done right. It must be done gently. But it must be done.

Gentrification means the resettlement of the middle class in urban areas. It means the undoing of two generations of moving to suburbs ever farther away from the city center, leaving urban areas filled with working class and poor people, with fading economic prospects and crumbling infrastructure, and with historic connections slashed apart by interstate highways and commercial "stroads." Gentrification is essential because:
  1. Society cannot afford to maintain urban sprawl. A spread out population requires a lot of roads, pipes and other infrastructure that look great when they're new, but costs more to maintain than most state and local governments can afford. To be fiscally sustainable, metropolitan areas need to contract, an urgency reinforced by the impact of all that driving on the environment, public health and energy supplies.
  2. Urban areas need investment. You can't eat character, and you can't eat history. Middle class people and businesses bring badly-needed investments into communities that have for a long time suffered a lack of jobs, crime and struggling schools.
  3. We must hang together, or we shall hang separately. This quote, attributed to Benjamin Franklin during the U.S. War of Independence, applies to the various challenges of the 21st century. America can't face those challenges if Americans are variously huddled in enclaves based on similarity of race and class.
Urban gentrification is particularly urgent in our metropolitan areas that are physically large, like Atlanta, Los Angeles and Phoenix; and those centered on older industrial cities like Cleveland and Detroit. But to some degree it's needed everywhere, even in smaller cities like Cedar Rapids. Just because we're neither as physically large nor as populous as Atlanta doesn't mean we can afford to keep spreading out. The keys to the future of Cedar Rapids lie in our core neighborhoods and our downtown, not with the super-suburb that will supposedly be created by the extension of Highway 100.

Gentle gentrification means infusing urban neighborhoods without pushing out long-time residents. It means adding to the historic character of the neighborhood instead over overturning it. And there are very few examples of gentrification occurring gently--certainly not the Highland Park area of Los Angeles profiled by "Marketplace," or the Mission District of San Francisco, or... you name it. There are a number of reasons why gentrification is so hard to do gently. I hope you will be so impressed by the power of my analysis that you will overlook the fact that I don't have the slightest clue how to address them.
  1. There are no effective mechanisms to bring this about. Gently gentrifying a neighborhood requires a great deal of nuance and balance. Economic markets can be good at nuance, but lately supply seems to work in a binary fashion: high-end goods aimed at the well-off, or cheap goods aimed at the not-well-off. You're either Bloomingdale's or Wal-Mart, but not both. Government tools, whether incentives or regulations, are of necessity based on uniformity and hence are terrible at nuance.
  2. Difference makes us terribly uncomfortable. There are a lot of facets to the recent tragedies involving Eric Garner, Michael Brown and others, but this one theme clearly emerges from the national discussion. Some feel guilty or frustrated with the lingering divisions, a few are proud of being unlike the other. More broadly, people who can afford it are willing to pay a premium to live away from people who can't. A truly diverse neighborhood begins with many points of tension. This is unfortunately exacerbated by...
  3. Lack of confidence in our political and economic institutions. Wage growth has not responded to four years of economic growth. It's about the last indicator to respond anyway, but the future of employment is far from certain, and everyone knows that. Public lack of confidence in our public officials could not have been helped by the disgraceful campaign of 2014. I don't have data on local officials, but my hunch is that they're less exempt from this attitude than in previous years. Bottom line: there's widespread feeling that the economic deck is stacked against "us" (whoever "we" are), and that government is only responsive to a faction that isn't us, either.
Gentle gentrification means neighborhood diversity in every possible respect, instead of the "come heres" outbidding and then pushing out the "been heres." It's a tall order, a very tall order indeed, but maybe possible once more people realize that sprawl and enclaves are unaffordable luxuries. Spread the word.

"Issues of Privilege in Walkable Cities," 23 June 2014, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2014/06/issues-of-privilege-in-walkable-cities.html
"The Gentrification Conundrum (II)," 21 March 2014, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-gentrification-conundrum-ii.html
"Gentrification in the Mission District," 4 December 2013, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2013/12/gentrification-in-mission-district.html
"Downtown, Where All the Lights Are Bright?," 10 November 2013, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2013/11/downtown-where-all-lights-are-bright.html

Friday, November 28, 2014

Black Thursday: Does It Matter?

The arms race among chain stores for Day-after-Thanksgiving shoppers breached midnight a couple years ago, and this year stores were advertising "doorbusters" as early as 5 p.m. Thanksgiving Day. The muscling in by holiday shopping onto what had been a sacred day for American civil religion has occasioned some outrage among commentators, which has in turn led to counter-outrage and charges of hypocrisy. My friend and fellow blogger John Heaton noted on Facebook:
For everyone concerned about retail workers having to work tomorrow, please don't forget to boycott the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade; NFL football; NHL ice hockey; NCAA football and basketballl; and literally anything else that airs on any TV or radio station. Unless you think it's OK for cameramen, engineers, stadium beer vendors, balloon wranglers, newscasters, and athletes to have to spend their holiday away from their families.
My own initial instinct is to be, if not outraged, at least profoundly troubled by this intrusion. But is there a rational basis for this feeling, or am I just reacting to a change in cultural tradition?

Critics often note that the chain stores are yanking underpaid workers (see Florida article, cited below) away from their families in order to deal with hordes of bargain-hungry shoppers. But many people were already working on Thanksgiving. Some are essential workers, like police, firefighters, security guards and medical personnel. Radio and television stations operate with at least skeleton staff; this may be because they were traditionally part of the civil defense system, and since 1978 stations have to keep operating in order to defend their space on the broadcast spectrum. So, if you're listening to the radio or watching TV on Thanksgiving, you're using the services of at least one person who's at work instead of being at home with family.

There are others working, too. When my wife was growing up, her family tradition was to go bowling after Thanksgiving dinner. Someone had to be working at the bowling alley, right? More recently, I had a modest personal Thanksgiving tradition. After our family had a sumptuous dinner at my sister's house in Illinois, I would drive my brother home and then stop at a convenience store (at Rte. 53 and 75th Street, to be precise) for an energizing coffee or pop. As a college teacher, I don't hold classes on Thanksgiving Day, but I almost always do some grading (as indeed I did this year), and many years ago worked holiday shifts at my college radio station so we could comply with FCC regulations and keep our frequency. So for years upon years I have been no stranger either to working or to using services on Thanksgiving.

So why then am I bothered by the recent move of major retailers into the holiday evening? I can think of three major reasons... love 'em or gently correct 'em.

It's the scale. One could argue, as John does above, that if anyone is working on Thanksgiving Day, no one can justifiably complain about working. I'd say, though, there is a difference between a bowling alley or convenience store that just happens to be open, and a large retail franchise for which this is a major, heavily-advertised event. Maybe I'm buying too credulously into the myth of small business benignity. But I think that a small operation can identify and financially reward staff who are willing to work the holiday without requiring all hands to be on deck; and that the local owner might well be responsive if he or she found the staff generally objected to working then.

On a holiday honoring our better feelings, it appeals to our baser motives. Materialism has its place, as economists since Mandeville have noted. But that place should be bounded, because we are more than mere consumers of stuff. Our brains have reward centers, at which holiday marketing takes dead-eye aim (Glinton), but we need to take time to connect with family and friends, to express gratitude, and to digest food. Our culture used to support our need for this time: Recall that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1939 proclamation moving Thanksgiving from the last Thursday of November to the fourth Thursday was occasioned by retailers' concerns about delaying the start of Christmas shopping (Stein and Delaney). Now materialism, having walked all over the religious-spiritual side of  Christmas for years, tosses constraint aside and brazenly marches into Thanksgiving. You saw your family and ate your turkey, right? Good. Now get out here and buy something!

It reminds us of the spiritual poverty of our public spaces. The first Thanksgiving dinner, at least in legend, was shared by the entire population of the  Plymouth colony along with their Powhatan neighbors. These days we celebrate Thanksgiving, not as a whole community, but in pods of family and friends. Retail Doorbusters do get us out in public--however, instead of being a community of citizens we're individual consumers competing with other consumers out to acquire the same low-priced stuff. The physical locations where these encounters occur are no more uplifting, as underscored by this year's Strong Towns survey of parking lots (Marohn).

So I think we're right to feel uneasy at this latest development of modern life, at whatever level we feel the unease, and however inconsistent it might be with our behavior. Starting Black Friday on Thursday late afternoon  harms rather than enhances our common life. Formulating a response is tricky, though. It doesn't seem to me to be properly the province of public policy (i.e. regulation). The rules of competition being what they are, it's a lot to expect any of the major retailers unilaterally to disarm. (Note the comments of retail analyst Howard Davidowitz in the NPR story.) However, if any of them does, we should reward them. Better yet, let's eschew the chains altogether and patronize local businesses that keep their revenues in our towns.


Richard Florida, "This Holiday Season, Let's Turn Retail Jobs Into Middle-Class Ones," CityLab, 28 November 2014, http://www.citylab.com/politics/2014/11/this-holiday-season-lets-turn-retail-jobs-into-middle-class-ones/383252/

Sunari Glinton, "Holiday Shopping Ads Are Geared Toward Brain's Reward Center," National Public Radio, 26 November 2014, http://www.npr.org/2014/11/26/366729888/holliday-shopping-ads-are-geared-toward-brains-reward-center

Charles Marohn, "#blackfridayparking," Strong Towns, 28 November 2014, http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2014/11/27/blackfridayparking

Sam Stein and Arthur Delaney, "When FDR Tried To Mess With Thanksgiving, It Backfired Big Time," Huffington Post, 25 November 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/25/fdr-thanksgiving_n_4339310.html


"Ending the War on Christmas," 21 December 2013, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-war-on-christmas.html

"Local Businesses," 4 June 2013, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2013/06/local-businesses.html

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Four towns, four days

Last weekend I had the opportunity to drive south of chilly Iowa, as far as Arkansas, where the leaves were still colorful, but it was also chilly. The impetus was an event at the Clinton Presidential Museum and Library, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. The museum is in a new building...

Clinton Museum and Library, Little Rock
...but the neighboring Clinton School of Public Service is in a repurposed building that has been a train depot, shop and a storage facility over the years. The makeover is lovely.
Clinton School of Public Service, Little Rock
Here's an interior shot, of the library where they had a reception for us visiting academics Thursday night. There's just something about a historic building..
Library, Clinton School of Public Service
The Clinton campus is located east of downtown, and has spurred some commercial development in the area now known as River Market. An internal report out in advance of the anniversary celebration credited the museum with spurring $2.5 billion in development since its opening (cited in Leslie Newell Peacock, "Ten Years After," Arkansas Times, 13 November 2014, 16).. River Market covers only a few square blocks in a town of less than 200,000 population (metro area is 724,385). But it shows what can be accomplished by focusing attention on a specific area. As Jeff Speck argues in the last chapter of Walkable City, you can't solve every problem at once so you have to choose your projects.

Interstate 30 runs between the museum campus and River Market, leaving a vast empty space on the streets there, but once downtown there are some friendly walkable blocks with attractive museums, restaurants and shops.

Both nights I was there, people were walking around in the evenings despite the chilly air.

If I were reading this post, I would want to know about coffee. Sufficient Grounds Café claims to be the "best coffee house in Little Rock."

It is only open weekdays, but Andina Cafe and Boulevard Bread Company were doing a brisk business Saturday morning, so the area must have sufficient residential population...

...mostly condos, from what I saw.

Other urbanist features included street trees...

...bike lanes protected by the on-street parking...

...a riverwalk that included a variety of options (including a "Health Walk" with posters listing symptoms that I'm sure is a favorite among hypochondriacs)...

...streetcars instead of buses...

...and it's worth noting that none of the streets downtown were more than a couple lanes wide.

There were also banners, the inevitable sign of a conscious place branding strategy.

Although I could see from my hotel window where River Market stopped and the parking craters and brutalist architecture began...

...I was impressed with how Little Rock has worked within the specific River Market area. Success here certainly has the potential for success elsewhere in the area.

On my trip I spent time in three other towns. My former, superficial impression of Hannibal was mainly as a tourist trap capitalizing on native son Mark Twain. There was some of that...

OK, there was a lot of that...

...but my main impression this time was impressed at how well they were taking advantage of the Mississippi River.

There was a walk up the bluff to an overlook, and a butterfly garden along the way.

Downtown looked picturesque and inviting, albeit it was 7:00 in the morning in the off-season.

From there I drove to Columbia, site of the University of Missouri's main campus, where my former student Bimal is in a Ph.D. program. We met for coffee at funky Fretboard Coffee in Columbia's North Village area...

...but my general impression of greater campustown was not favorable. Walnut Street on the way to Fretboard was dominated by new, large, blocky apartment buildings that dominate the street. Iowa City, which seems to have caught the construction bug of late, should take note that not all new construction contributes positively to the life of a city.

On the way back to Iowa I stopped in Joplin, Misouri, to see two friends of long-standing, Jeff and Heather Grills. Heather is the owner of Phoenix Fired Art, a gallery with space for classes that is or could be the headquarters of a little arts district on South Main Street.

Much of Joplin is building its way back from a devastating tornado in 2011. It's too early to say if the rebuilding has a vision to it, or if it will be as car-centered as ever.

Interestingly, none of these towns has a high Walk Score. In Little Rock and Hannibal, though, I saw areas that could become the bases for more walkable cities.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Ballot initiatives: Election 2014

Alexis de Tocqueville (above, from Wikimedia Commons) was impressed by local self-government.
There was more to Election Day than met the eye. Specifically, there were a number of state and local initiatives that bore directly on our common life. In nearly all of these cases I was unaware of the vote; the information below comes from the sources listed at the end of the piece.

Transportation. San Francisco and Seattle passed propositions that would expand public transit operations and routes, and in Seattle's case prevent proposed transit cuts by raising the city sales tax. San Francisco's Proposition A also set aside funding for 27 miles of bike routes, as well as traffic signal and crosswalk improvements for pedestrian safety. Other transit improvements were passed in Alameda County (Oakland), California; Arlington County (suburban Washington), Virginia; Clayton County (suburban Atlanta), Georgia; and the State of Rhode Island. Transportation measures lost in Alachua and Pinellas Counties (Gainesville and St. Petersburg, respectively), Florida, and Austin, Texas, while Massachusetts voters blocked a "cost-of-living" increase in that state's gasoline tax (which funds a variety of transportation projects). The Austin measure, which would have created a light-rail system, had led rather decisively in pre-election polling, with analysts there blaming the defeat on low turnout by transit-loving younger voters.

Environmental Conservation. Statewide referenda to dedicate funds (generally, existing rather than new money) to environmental conservation were passed in Florida, Maine, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Florida and Maine were focused on water quality and wetlands--in Florida's case involving a long-term commitment and billions of dollars. New Jersey shifted money within the environmental budget towards conservation of open spaces, while Rhode Island focused on clean-up of brownfields (abandoned, contaminated industrial sites). Beaufort County, South Carolina passed legislation to make it easier for the county to purchase environmentally-sensitive property.

Fracking. Two cities--Athens, Ohio, and Denton, Texas--as well as San Benito County, California, passed bans on the energy extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing. "Fracking" has been a key element in the increase in American oil production, not to mention the drop in gasoline prices and manufacturing operations moving back to these shores. It has been alleged by environmentalists to contaminate drinking water and cause earthquakes, with producer interests vigorously contesting those claims. The overall evidence is inconclusive to date but does tend to unnerve people, apparently even in Texas. Sure, Denton is a university town, but, Texas.

City Development. Two California towns, Dublin and Union City, defeated attempts to override open space protections. San Francisco defeated an attempt to undo their clever, market-based parking rate innovations.

Minimum wage. Voters in four states, all of which tilt Republican in presidential and most statewide elections, approved increases in the state minimum wage over the next 1-3 years. Arkansas and South Dakota will rise to $8.50 an hour, Nebraska to $9.00 and Alaska to $9.75. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

Casinos. Voters in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and South Dakota voted to add or expand casino gambling in those states. California and Colorado rejected casino referenda, albeit the "no" campaigns in those states (as was the case in Cedar Rapids in 2013) were primarily funded by other casinos that feared new competition.

Marijuana. Voters in the states of Alaska and Oregon, as well as the District of Columbia, passed initiatives legalizing marijuana. These, of course, require federal acquiescence--or at least--passivity, as marijuana remains illegal under U.S. law. This is particularly true for the District of Columbia, which is not a sovereign state and so anything it does requires congressional approval. A majority of Florida voters approved a measure legalizing marijuana for medicinal use, but it failed of passage because it fell short of the required 60 percent threshold. It passed in Guam, though. There were a variety of local initiatives in six states, notably all blue states or at least purple (Colorado, New Mexico). An Arizona referendum in 2016 would be interesting to watch.

I find a lot of this activity encouraging. It shows voters in many places--though by no means everywhere--are thinking about ways to improve their quality of life and those of their neighbors, and are not shy about using public authority and funds to do so. Too many places have gotten into the habit of leveraging federal money for infrastructure and environmental improvements. The federal government can on occasion be out in front of states and localities on important issues, but can also create perverse incentives. Anyway, it's better if people are deciding the direction their own towns will take. Besides, as the Strong Towns folk have begun to mull in their most recent podcast, there's no guarantee the federal cow will be around much longer to milk for local projects.

I'm ambivalent about initiatives for three reasons. First, the economy and the environment are national if not global in scale, and sometimes need coordinated national policy responses. Economically vulnerable cities can just as easily "race to the bottom" as they can pass thoughtful initiatives (sort of like Iowa blocking passenger rail while funding the opening of a fertilizer plant). Secondly, voters do not have the ability that legislatures have to coordinate policies and balance priorities. They can pass things that individually sound good but collectively make no sense. Finally, initiatives, like other elections (and indeed legislatures), are vulnerable to manipulation by well-funded interests. Wallach and Hudak note that the "yes" side in the Alaska marijuana referendum and the "no" side in Florida vastly outspent their opponents.

I'm also terribly conflicted about marijuana legalization. Dealing with our youth as I do on a daily basis, I see that it can be abused with costly results to the individual. But you could say the same about alcohol, and indeed it's hard to justify marijuana being illegal when alcohol is legal. I wonder how I would have blogged on prohibition in 1932? The costs of marijuana law enforcement are pretty much a massive waste. So on balance I'm glad about this trend.

In all I find the upsurges of local self-government in 2014 to be as encouraging as the congressional elections were dispiriting. Discussing, even arguing local issues with your neighbors is likely to be more constructive than yelling across the country at a caricature of the other side.


Josh Barro, "The Strange Case of States' Penchant for Casinos," New York Times, 6 November 2014, P8

Shaila Dewan, "State Wage Initiatives Fare Better Than Democrats," New York Times, 6 November 2014, P8

Alex Dodds, "Voters Strongly Support Smart Growth Measures on Election Day 2014," Smart Growth America, 5 November 2014, http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/2014/11/05/voters-strongly-support-smart-growth-measures-on-election-day-2014/

Molly Hennessy-Fiske, "In Denton, Texas, Voters Approve 'Unprecedented' Fracking Ban," Los Angeles Times, 7 November 2014, http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-texas-fracking-20141108-story.html

Kirk Johnson, "New Marijuana Initiatives Loom as 3 Win Approval," New York Times, 6 November 2014, P8

Keenan Orfalea, "Millennials Demand Public Transportation, But Lose Out by Skipping the Voting Booth," Urbanful, 5 November 2014, http://urbanful.org/2014/11/05/millennials-demand-public-transportation-refuse-vote/?utm_source=Urbanful+Master+List&utm_campaign=4c5e5460db-November_5_Daily_Subscribers&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_fdf64fbc84-4c5e5460db-197203953

Joel Ramos, "San Francisco Voters Can Improve Muni Service at the Ballot Box This November," TransForum, 31 July 2014, http://www.transformca.org/transform-blog-post/san-francisco-voters-can-improve-muni-service-ballot-box-November

"2014 Ballot Initiatives," Marijuana Policy Project, http://www.mpp.org/legislation/2014-Ballot-Initiatives.html

"2014 Measures to Watch," Transportation for America, http://t4america.org/maps-tools/state-plans-tracker/2014-votes/

Phillip A. Wallach and John Hudak, "The Nation Continues to Embrace Marijuana Legislation," FixGov: Making Government Work, 5 November 2014, http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/fixgov/posts/2014/11/05-marijuana-ballot-initiatives-midterms-hudak-wallach

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Turn red for what?

Iowa finally has sent a woman to Congress. Yay, Iowa?
The off-year elections of 2014 occurred in the shadow of continued economic uncertainty. Economic indicators have shown improvement since the recession hit bottom in 2009, but the public is slow to buy into the idea of recovery--appropriately so, in my view. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last summer found respondents split almost down the middle: 50 percent believed the economy is improving, 47 percent disagreed. Similarly, 49 percent said the economy was still in recession, 46 percent disagreed. (The percentage describing the economy as in recession has steadily declined since 2010, but remains too high to describe the public mood as anything like confident.) 69 percent of respondents told CNN that another financial crisis in the near future was either "very likely" or "somewhat likely." (Source: Polling Report) As of today, the Real Clear Politics average on the question of whether the country is on the "right track" or the "wrong track" stands at 28-66 (Source: Real Clear Politics).

Continued economic uncertainty is, I argue, central to many questions at the core of our common life in 21st century America. Richard V. Reeves of the Brookings Institution argues inequality "lurks" in election-year arguments over the Affordable Care Act, taxes and the minimum wage (cited below). Beyond that, it's hard to be confident about the next generation's prospects for rewarding work. (I liked the way KCRG-TV reporter Chris Earl put it in a recent conversation about the election, that the issue is not so much about jobs as careers.) Uncertainty about our immediate prospects make it nearly impossible to address important long-term challenges such as resource conservation, climate change, community-building and accommodating diversity. Negotiating complex phenomena while feeling personally insecure is hardly likely to be productive.

What all this adds up to is the nature of the political campaign we have just endured. Clearly public officials are aware of the public mood, but have little to offer in the way of constructive solutions. My Drake University colleague Dennis J. Goldford used the term "carpet bombing" to describe what's been happening to states like Iowa as well-resourced groups, freed from restraints on their spending "speech" by a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, tirelessly and relentlessly communicate at us. There may be some argument somewhere in all this noise, but the themes from the groups, and the candidates have largely amounted to: Vote against the bad guys. And please send us money so they don't accidentally win. I've been getting eight e-mails a day from groups like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, saying essentially that and no more. As a result, writes former Des Moines Register editorial page editor Richard Doak (cited below), "I can't remember a year when voting was so unsatisfying. Casting an early ballot in 2014 felt like a chore. There was no pride or enthusiasm. There was something close to indifference." Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson chimes in: "We're being asked to vote out of resentment and grim duty. So much for what Lincoln called 'the better angels of our nature ("Four Takes").'"

Republican gains in the Senate set up a situation we've seen before (1959-60, 1987-88, 1999-2000, 2007-08): a President of one party, in the last two years of his administration, facing a Congress controlled by the other party. This will change the context of Washington politics--Republicans will control the agenda and the investigative apparatus of the Senate--but if the past is any guide nothing of significance will occur to affect our lives or the direction of the country. President Obama will become decreasingly relevant as attention swivels to the long 2016 presidential campaign. This may be just as well, given that neither party has run an issue-oriented campaign, and so would have no mandate to govern if they were somehow in position to do so. (That is not to say they wouldn't try, given recent unpleasant experiences with one-party rule in Kansas, North Carolina, Wisconsin and arguably Colorado, where an agenda-less election produced a government in a sudden hurry to enact an ideological agenda.)

Perhaps the best outcome of this year's elections would be to cause us to re-examine what national politics can contribute to our common life. A global economy requires national, if not, global responses: only the national government can produce a health care system, counter-cyclical economic policy, and financial and environmental regulation. In an ideal world, Democrats would be making this case, and Republicans would be arguing how they could do it better. But that's not going to be happening any time soon. Both parties--maybe, apres Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein (It's Even Worse Than It Looks [Basic, 2012]), the Republicans more than the Democrats--are ideologically out of the mainstream of American voters and so shun policy appeals in favor of cheesy promises, absurd fantasies and attack ads.

So, what can we do in the mean time?

1. Think locally, act globally. Communities need to be engaged in conversations about their future: what the town will look like, how things are going to get paid for, how to include everyone. Some of these conversations have begun in Cedar Rapids, while other places have gotten implementable ideas from organizations like Strong Towns and The Better Block. More people should get involved in these sorts of conversations, even informally. I'm not sanguine about this, either, as you can tell from the tone of my last few posts about development in Cedar Rapids, and I know there are plenty of people in localities who only want to put space, walls, guns and laws between themselves and The Other. But local communities are where conversations can occur, and maybe just maybe that spirit can bubble up into our national political dialogue. If we can fix our neighborhoods and metro regions, I think the country could fix itself.

2. Think critically. This election, I freely admit, I cast unenthusiastic votes for unimpressive people because I found the alternatives far worse. Maybe this is dumb. Can we insist that the people on "our side" articulate coherent solutions to our problems before we vote for them? And can we stop believing whatever bad things are said about the other side? One reasons candidates use coded language and sloppy arguments is that someone out there is falling for them. Don't be that guy. Democrats should say, "Climate change is real, and Republicans sound silly when they deny it. So what are we going to do about it?" Republicans should say, "Let's do repeal Obamacare. But what are we going to replace it with?" Better yet, eschew ideology altogether and look for proven, practical, affordable solutions to public problems.

3. Hope for a rational system of financing campaigns. We cannot have a common life when most of us are priced out of the political dialogue. I'm all for the freedom of expression, but this is ridiculous. In a billion dollar campaign centered on Super PACs there is no way the common voice gets heard. A lot of the money is spent by groups whose true identities are unknown even as they spend millions on last-minute ads and phone calls (Confessore and Willis; see also Hudak and Wallack) The average House member raised $2.6 million for the 2014 election, occupying up to 70 percent of their time this year (Schanzer and Sullivan). The Republican advantage this year may be a product of the political climate, not some inherent advantage, but the problem is not that Democrats don't have enough money. The problem is that the vast majority of us who aren't mega-donors have lost our voice, and our participation is being manipulated. In all the screeching about "Millionaire Rod Blum" and Bruce Braley-the-trial-lawyer-who-doesn't-care-about-terrorism, where are the constructive solutions? Is anyone talking about making the poor less poor?

Reeves of Brookings notes, "In private, at least, many Republicans are as troubled by Democrats by the relative weakness of middle class earnings and incomes" and "political possession of both Houses may increase the pressure to deliver some reforms in response to the growing anxiety on all sides about the economic health of the American middle class." But that's not what Republicans were selling, and that's not what their voters bought. So it's hard to imagine progress being made on that front, or on climate change, or on immigration, while Republicans are the ones doing the end zone dance of joy and feasting their eyes on the White House. It is unlikely, too, given past experience, that they'll be able to do much harm, either. But can Democrats plausibly claim that keeping their Senate majority would have led to better outcomes? Sure, they don't have the Republicans' wackier delusions, but where is the roadmap to a better future? President Obama has something of a roadmap, at least domestically, but many Democrats are too busy pretending they don't know him to own it or anything else (Capehart).

I am humbled by the number of my students who immersed themselves in this year's campaigns, on both sides of the partisan-ideological divide. I hope they found the experience rewarding. But I think as long as national politics features a ton of money and a paucity of policy solutions we are a long way from having politics that is worthy of their passion.


Jonathan Capehart, "Democrats' Mistake: Running from Obama or Staying Home," Post-Partisan, 3 November 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2014/11/03/democrats-mistake-running-away-from-obama-or-staying-home/

Nicholas Confessore and Derek Willis, "Hidden Donors Spend Heavily On Attack Ads," The New York Times, 3 November 2014, A1, A16

Richard Doak, "Despite Choices, Nothing Changes," Des Moines Register, 2 November 2014, http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2014/11/02/richard-doak-two-party-system/18320463/

"Four Takes: Columnists Predict What Will Happen in Tuesday's Midterms, and What It Means," Dallas News, 2 November 2014, http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/latest-columns/20141102-four-takes-columnists-predict-what-will-happen-in-tuesdays-midterms-and-what-it-means.ece

John Hudak and Grace Wallack, "Outside Spending Increases the Price of Senate Elections," FixGov: Making Government Work, 3 November 2014

Richard V. Reeves, "2014 Midterms: Inequality Lurks Beneath the Surface of Political Discourse," FixGov: Making Government Work, 24 October 2014

David Schanzer and Jay Sullivan, "Cancel the Midterms," The New York Times, 3 November 2014, A25

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Greene Square formerly known as Park

OPN Architects Inc.'s rendering of the planned Greene Square
(swiped by me from thegazette.com)
Things have taken a strange and alarming turn downtown. Or am I being melodramatic? The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported last week that the Parks and Recreation Department have released revised plans for Greene Square Park that are radically different from what had been earlier proposed. Granted that it's only one square block of a mid-sized American city, but I think the change in plans says a lot about the city's vision for its downtown. I'm not liking what I'm seeing.

There is no question that Greene Square Park is currently underutilized, as indeed is the case for the downtown area writ large. Back in the day, it was called Washington Square, and it was the central park in town, the square bounded by the train station, the high school, the library and First Presbyterian Church. (See George T. Henry and Mark W. Hunter, Then and Now: Cedar Rapids (Charleston SC: Arcadia, 2003, p. 96.) As the town moved outward so did these facilities (except the train station, which was torn down in 1961, and the church which remains). The park lost its importance, drawing crowds for occasional concerts and, in recent years, farmers' markets, but being for the most part empty.

Efforts to revive downtown began in earnest as soon as the 2008 floodwaters receded. A new public library opened across the street from the park in 2013, and the art museum that occupies the original library space got a spiffy facelift. Away from the park, downtown has seen new and rebuilt offices, restaurants and entertainment venues. Ambitious plans to develop the sort-of-adjacent New Bohemia neighborhood have come to fruition, while a similarly ambitious plan for the Medical Quarter are taking shape. No less a luminary than Jeff Speck has been called in to improve downtown walkability.

But walkability requires more than just sidewalks, bike lanes and four-way stops. It requires places to walk to... and that requires people. By that, I mean a lot more people than can currently be found downtown. The next step in becoming a sustainable, walkable city with "vibe" requires round-the-clock residents. As of now, downtown Cedar Rapids is mainly for Monday-Friday daytime office work and some evening entertainment. A few condominiums have been built downtown to appeal to young people who want to be in the center of this action, but there are few if any housing options for families. Nor, if there were, are there facilities nearby to support them: schools (except for McKinley Middle School), grocery and hardware stores, or parks.

The Greene Square plan as of August was to add a children's play area. This would be attractive to visitors to the public library and art museum, but essential to families with children living downtown. As such it was essential to the transformation of Cedar Rapids from a city that requires a car to one that offered a compact urban alternative.

The children's play area could actually still be in the new plan, though I doubt it. I'm uncertain because the Gazette included two architects' graphics that are illuminating but not complete, and if the complete plan is on the city website I sure can't find it. The main impression I get from the architects' renderings in the Gazette  is gaudily pretentious, like Versailles on the Cedar.

Given my lack of artistic taste, we might allow that the sculptures and other gee-gaws in the drawing above are nice to look at. But, as Jane Jacobs famously said, "A city cannot be a work of art" (The Death and Life of Great American Cities [Vintage (1961) 1992], p. 372). A city needs life, which means people. The new design has no use for people other than as amazed spectators, or at most passers-through from the art museum to the library. Tellingly, the space is now to be called "Greene Square" not "Greene Square Park." The plan doesn't even include rest rooms.

What this says to me is that we in Cedar Rapids expect our downtown to be a showplace, for people to visit (particularly those who can afford an upscale restaurant and an expensive concert) but not to stay. To get home from downtown you'll need to drive your car out to your ranch walkout in a suburban development. (No problem, because gas is currently under $3 a gallon in town, which means it is guaranteed to remain under $3 a gallon for the rest of time.) Maybe you'll be living in the suburban area west of town that's sure to develop once we finish our $250 million interstate connector. If, on the other hand, you're interested in sustainable urban living, you maybe should check out St. Paul or Kansas City.


For the early version of Greene Square Park development, see Cindy Hadish, "Greene Square Park Moving into the Future in Downtown Cedar Rapids with New Design; Plan Retains Some Historical Elements," Homegrown Iowan, 28 August 2014, http://homegrowniowan.com/greene-square-park-moving-into-the-future-in-downtown-cedar-rapids-with-new-design-plan-retains-some-historical-elements/

For the latest version of Greene Square, see Rick Smith, "It's Greene Square, Not a Park," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 16 October 2014, 1A, 11A, http://thegazette.com/subject/news/its-greene-square-not-a-park-20141016#media-well-container

Sunday, October 19, 2014

CROP Walking

Early October in Linn County, Iowa, as in other places, is time for the annual CROP Walk to support Church World Service--a Christian ecumenical organization formed in 1946 to combat hunger and poverty. Numbers on this year's walk aren't available yet, but last year people from 26 churches raised $27,766.59 (including $150 in matching funds from Schneider Electric, and $70.09 "unaffiliated"). [Source is Ellen Fisher of the CROP Walk Planning Committee.]

Iowa weather in early October ranges from sunny and colorful--as, in fact, it is this afternoon as I write this--to miserable. For a long time CROP Walkers were blessed with nice weather, but these last few years it's been rainy more often than not. This year it was cloudy, and rained both before and after we walked, but during the walk itself it was mostly dry.

Why walk instead of just contributing money? I can think of three reasons why it's worth taking the extra steps to have this event.

First, for the donors, it provides an annual focus around which to give. Sure, one can donate money any time, but any time can be no time. Requests for charitable contributions come in pretty constantly, and ignoring them becomes a survival skill. Having one annual event around which to predict and schedule donations keeps time from slipping away. The need itself is hardly trivial--the Linn Community Food Bank served 30 percent more households in 2013 than it had the previous year, on top of a 33 percent increase in 2012 over 2011. Anything that draws attention to the ongoing problem of world hunger, including its Linn County chapter, is a good thing.

Second, for the walkers, it's a festive social occasion.
Departing from the park shelter after Dorothy Higdon gave the blessing
My church was represented by a pastor, several adult members of the congregation, and more than a dozen middle and high school youth.
Some of the Lovely Lane contingent prepare for the CROP Walk
We mingled along the trail with as many or more people from other churches. (In the past, there have also been walkers from Temple Judah, the Hindu temple, the carpenters' union and Coe College. I don't know about this year.) We greet friends and take pleasure in those who go all out, like First Lutheran Church with their matching purple jackets, and these costumed vegetables.
This year's CROP Walk featured walking crops
Finally, it urges everyone to get out and enjoy the metro trails system. A few years ago, the walk moved to the Marion Parks Trail from Noelridge Park in Cedar Rapids. This was a good move: Noelridge is a fine and city park, with greenhouse, gardens, playground and outdoor pool, but walking around a track is dull compared to getting off on a countrysidish trail. The CROP Walk starts at Thomas Park in Marion, and follows the Marion Parks trail to Boyson Road and back, about 3.1 miles round trip. (The significance of this distance is that people in parts of the world have to walk this far each day to get water to drink.)
Along the trail, an opening in the woods
(revealing an under-construction subdivision, but as the Vogons say...)
Along the trail, a choice of paths
Water break at Boyson Road turn-around
Along the trail, a view of a mysterious other trail
Almost there... crossing the bridge over Dry Creek
Raising money for a worthy cause, in good company, while we enjoy the wonderful public good a trail provides--what a wonderful local tradition!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

In search of old 45s

Boxes of 45 rpm records at Washington's Crooked Beat
Some free time and lovely weather inspired me to a walking tour of Washington, D.C. record stores last weekend. The stores were interesting, the exercise did me good, and it might have something to say about urbanism to boot.

We begin at Dupont Circle, a wheel of pavement the spokes of which are Connecticut Ave, New Hampshire Av, P St and 19th St. The interior is a nice park, and the exterior has sidewalks on both sides, but I found it confusing to walk, even in light Saturday afternoon traffic. There are lights at each intersection, but the walk times are so few and far between that one is tempted to walk any time there aren't vehicles approaching. This is perfectly rational at a conventional intersection, but probably not at a roundabout.

West of Dupont Circle is Second Story Books, 2000 P St. It mostly sells used books, so its name is somewhat appropriate, although it occupies the entire building, and sometimes even...
..the sidewalk!

They did have a few LPs, mainly jazz, albeit a wide selection of that genre. Note the late Miles Davis album at the front of the middle box.

The 45s were in an alcove, with this inspirational saying posted above them.
What Cicero would think of a music collection without 45s is unrecorded, but I bet if he were alive today he wouldn't think twice about it. The staples of my youth have been overtaken successively by CDs and mp3s, so only the rare collector still traffics in these guys.

Next on our tour: Red Onion, 1901 18th St (corner of T St).

Now we're north of Dupont Circle and into the Adams Morgan neighborhood. The Red Onion is located in the basement of a building, and features mostly funk and hard rock LPs.

Outside, banners along the street celebrate the Adams Morgan neighborhood, and invite people to "Shop," "Eat," "Play" and "Live." This is a good example of place branding. I stayed for two weeks in this area in the 1980s during a short stint at the Brookings Institution, and had no idea it had a name. Now I do!

Up 18th Street at 2116, is another basement shop, Crooked Beat Records.
They claim a variety of genres (see sign at left), and sell new and used LPs and 45s. Their top three sellers in August were Spoon, Ty Segall and Insurgence DC.

Used LPs to the left, new to the right, 45s at the front of the store.

The view across the street.

Our final stop is Smash!, at 2314 18th St. It has new and used CDs and LPs, primarily rock, but as you can tell from the window display is distinguished by its selection of "vintage" clothing.

It also has 45s, but seriously? You couldn't have found another selection for the front of the box?

Three used record shops in a space of five blocks says something about a neighborhood. While each store had a few customers during the time I was there, neither the format nor the music itself is mainstream enough to attract squads of them. Ergo, rents are low in Adams Morgan. 18th Street has quite a few odd shops and little restaurants, but also small grocery stores, drug stores, a locksmith and an animal hospital--in other words, establishments catering to people's everyday lives. In contrast to Dupont Circle, which featured franchises like Panera Bread, Starbucks' and Books-a-Million, Adams Morgan has locally-owned businesses like the coffeehouses called Jolt n Bolt, L'Enfant Café-Bar and Adams Morgan Coffee Shop. There are places for parking, but the area is not overwhelmed by parking lots.

So, hooray for a walkable, livable neighborhood with locally-owned small businesses. My hometown of Cedar Rapids lacks the population or the density to do this on such a large scale, and it remains to be seen whether it can expand on the few efforts that have begun or will continue to conceive of commercial life in terms of franchise outlets and Super Wal-Marts.

Adams Morgan is a neighborhood that, at first superficial glance based on one walk-around, seems to have found the right equilibrium between gentrification and affordability. Maintaining that is surely tricky. How do you keep from tipping either to excess gentrification or insufficient capital?

RELATED POST: "Local Businesses," June 6, 2013

ON HOUSING COSTS IN DC (not differentiated by area, at least not in ways I can interpret): David Alpert, "How Fast Housing in DC is Growing Unaffordable, in 3 Charts," Greater Greater Washington, 8 October 2014, http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/24483/how-fast-housing-in-dc-is-growing-unaffordable-in-3-charts/

Opportunity Zones in CR

Construction on 12th Ave in New Bohemia; does this look under-invested? Three census tracts in the center of Cedar Rapids have been des...